Anatomy of a Suicide, Royal Court

Anatomy of a Suicide, Royal Court

Three generations of women live out their lives simultaneously, in this devastating examination of inherited trauma, suicide, and motherhood.

Two women kill themselves, slowly, for two hours.

Time crashes into each other. Linear time ceases to exist. Past present and future elide. A triptych of female pain. Generations of hurt reach across the decades but can’t quite cross those last few feet; the only boundary between them their own isolation. A trauma reverberates down the generations, only (medicalised) violence putting pay to (self-inflicted) violence.

And a woman who wears nothing but red.

Alice Birch’s new play Anatomy of a Suicide opened last Thursday at the Royal Court Theatre, directed by previous Birch collaborator Katie Mitchell. A vivid study of suicide, loss, and the way lasting effects of trauma, three stories are told simultaneously. The stage is dissected into three, each part existing within a different time zone (the 1970s, the 1990s, and the 2030s), each inhabited by a young woman: grandmother, mother, daughter living out their lives in union. In the 1970s Carol (a devastatingly effective Hattie Morahan, forensic in her elusiveness) struggles to remain alive for the sake of her daughter Anna (a 1990s hippie, with harder drugs) whose own daughter Bonnie lives in a future more concerned with love and career advancement than depleting fishing stocks.

They fuck you up, your mum and, well just your mum in this case. And your grandma.

This is a play about depression: the opening scene shows a desperately worried husband distractedly wrangling over floors flood-wrecked by a tub running over with bathwater and blood. His wife is “fine”, and remains “fine” throughout medication, ECT, different doctors, threats of Sectioning, a new house, and a baby: a tyrant in a romper suit, a “ fish hook round my middle pulling me up when I want to be under.”

The girl who once jumped off buildings to the delight of her less adventurous classmates is now a study in controlled and decisive terror at her own aliveness. Her daughter (Kate O’Flynn, playing an infuriatingly sympathetic and instantly recognisable mess) ploughs through cults, over sharing, heroin, hippie chic, ladette, statutory rape (disturbingly brushed over) and finally love and motherhood as transient solutions to more than a lifetime of trauma. Her own daughter (the always watchable Adelle Leonce) mirrors her grandmother’s stoic, arctic numbness. A protective self-contained froideur that not even “the best sex ever” (lesbian, as it happens) can defrost. Sex without intimacy. Motherhood without love. Or maybe with love, when love just isn’t enough.

This is not a play about depression: it is a play about mothers and daughters. How we struggle to establish our own identities and escape the shadow of our genetic legacy. It could be a play about the nature or nurture debate, but Birch is far too careful a playwright to reduce this cathartic twisty tragedy into a mere Ted talk.

Or a feminist lecture, yet feminism run through the play. Reproductive rights, sexual orientation, gender double standards, the myth of the happy housewife, the myth of having it all, motherhood.

It wasn’t until seeing the play for the second time that the level of complexity around all these largely unanswered questions really became clear. The absence of direct focus on the issue of consent draws more attention to it than a more detailed exploration could have done. Carol steadfastly rejects the same ECT her daughter presumably gave some form of consent to, but the fact Carol is not even allowed to view her new home unaccompanied suggests her right to make decisions about her own body is temporary and on sufferance. Anna’s drug-addled (and questionably illegal) seduction of a teenage boy is humiliating and traumatic to her and her alone; even when taking the role of predator, women are always the victim. Finally Bonnie’s decisive choice to stop generations of inherited trauma could be a rally for female reproductive rights, but the hollowness of her perceived lack of options defangs it. Which is as it should be, because this is a play about women: real, individual women, not causes.

The male characters are strangely passive and two-dimensional, and while it’s hard not to ponder why this doesn’t feel lacking. Women have been reduced to wives, girlfriends and the odd supporting (and supportive) nurse or secretary for ever, let the men take their turn. Not all stories have to be about men. It is pleasing that one woman’s mixed-race relationship and another’s same-sex relationship are treated in such an utterly casual and unremarkable (and unremarked) way, but fundamentally this is a play about three woman. There are interesting interludes from visiting children (apparently children from the 1970s to the 2030s are equally given to gnomic wisdoms and startlingly moments of insight in their childlike straight-talking), but only the three leads feel really real. Perhaps that’s intentional. Perhaps they are the only real ones.

The staging is that deceptively clever kind that feels like the obvious or only choice. The overlapping stories and dialogue led to some confusing or challenging moments in previews but these had been smoothed out by press night. Moments big and small are mirrored, dialogue and gesture showing a genetic legacy trapped in half a century of oppression.

There is little attempt to explain or hand wave the origin of a (multiple-) life long desire for non-existence. “Like carpenters they want to know which tools. They never ask why build.” (Anne Sexton, ‘Wanting to Die’) Does it matter where Carol’s original depression came from? A body in motion tends to stay in motion. Did Carol’s suicide render the future (present? past?) inevitable? A body at rest tends to stay at rest.

Two women kill themselves, slowly, for fifty years.

 

Tristan and Yseult, Shakespeare’s Globe

Tristan and Yseult, Shakespeare’s Globe

Two minutes into Emma Rice and Knee High’s Tristan and Yseult at the Globe and two men are dancing together, miming falsetto. One of them is a sexy-camp bad boy. We know he’s a sexy-camp bad boy because he’s wearing a sharp suit with sockless trainers (and a lilac ruffled shirt, introducing a 70s vibe to an otherwise rather 50s styling).

What follows throws everything but the kitchen sink into the mix: disco, cross-dressing, random bursts of dry ice, balloons, audience interaction, audience interaction involving balloons, acrobatics, ballroom, topical political references, aerial silks, deelyboppers, poetry, and what looks vaguely like a Kalamatianós with invisible handkerchiefs..

When the Riverdancing starts it reaches the cusp of being too much but then (marked by the most accidentally perfectly timed helicopter overhead) then the real men, the powerful men, the military men arrive, and the party stops.

But not for long, because then the fighting starts and they’re dancing, it’s a party, it’s all a party, even stabbing is a kind of dance and death just another side to life’s party.

Perhaps I’m overthinking. It’s true though that the music, carnival atmosphere, and general frenetic pace leaves few opportunities to slow down and let the real drama and emotion just… be. The first meeting between Tristan (Dominic Marsh, the standout and no doubt aimed for super stardom) and Yseult’s (Hannah Vassallo, impishly charismatic) takes place with her straddling him, unconscious in a hammock. The girl is certainly bold, but their initial encounter goes from lust to misunderstanding to hate to love in the space of about three high-energy minutes.

The cast are uniformly excellent, but the emotional highlight of the production has to go to Niall Ashdown, whose maid Brangian deftly moves between comedy and genuinely touching pathos as she agrees to give her virginity in lieu of her more experienced newlywed Queen. Bed tricks are common in classical theatre, but it’s hard to think of many plays where the stand-in’s point of view is considered. Musing the morning after, the obedient servant and (former?) Unloved regrets not that she hated the fraudulent sex, but that she liked it too much, and ponders whether her royal mistress would take her place on her wedding night.

7e4f6ccf-d95f-2659-7681fe12cf45a256But don’t worry if such wistful contemplation of the commodification of the female body and the inherent inequalities of searching for love in a brutally classicist society is not your style, there’ll be a group sing-along of Get Lucky along in a minute.

This adaptation used two separate narrators as framing devices, the first an adorable if clichéd (but it works so who cares?) coterie of “love-spotters”. These anoraked and binocular-laden misfortunates are members of an exclusive but undesirable club: The Unloved. Yes, it allows for bits of japery using old comedy standbys like the love testing machine, but the Unloved have so much heart nothing else is needed. The introduction of a second narrator with her own tragic twist ending (taken from Thomas of Britain’s version of the legend) is rather odd. True love apparently means marrying someone else and being a dick to them till they act out in frustration.

 

The names Tristan and Yseult have been a byword for tragic love for centuries, but this joyous party ends with a sombre ambiguity. The betrayed King Mark (Mike Shepherd, bringing real humanity and depth) could have been a one-dimensional tyrant, but he’s not. His marriage to Yseult could so easily have been a happy one. Maybe the real tragedy is not in lovers torn apart, but in the pain they inflict upon others.

 

Tickets from £5 (Standing) can be purchased from the Shakespeare’s Globe http://www.shakespearesglobe.com/theatre/whats-on

 

Blush, Soho Theatre

Blush, Soho Theatre

Snuff Box Theatre’s Blush transfers to the Soho Theatre after a sell-out run in Edinburgh. This modern-day morality tale explores five interconnected stories of revenge porn, sex, cyberspace, and the search for connection.

Told as a series of monologues, one male actor and one female actor (Daniel Foxsmith and writer Charlotte Josephine, both excellent) take turns bringing multiple characters to life in a blood-red circle hemmed in by lights and camera clicks. A teenage girl enacts an Athenian revenge against the boy who made her naked flesh go viral, but worse. A Bright Young Mind’s wine-fuelled misunderstanding with an sleazy-sympathetic (?) app developer spins into rape threats when unleashed onto the cannibalistic echo chamber of social media. A compulsive masturbator and protective family man is confronted, by way of a conveniently coincidental Hello Kitty poster, of the cost of his pastime. And elsewhere, a bloke doesn’t text his girlfriend back.

Josephine’s claustrophobic script pulsates with anger, pulling no punches yet offering no answers. The Internet a lawless badlands where dog eats dog and the only thing that can beat leaked nudes are leaked pencil-dicked nudes. Victims become aggressors. Loneliness is weaponised, and every female body a loaded gun. At just 70 minutes it’s almost too intense, the actors running, panting and dancing themselves into a frenzy, trapped within the circle like pacing zoo animals. The complex multi-rolling of mostly unnamed characters requires constant attention to avoid confusion as the disparate stories crash and fold into each other, but it is the emotional truth and rawness of the performances that bring a glimmer of light to a show with a thoroughly nihilistic view of modern society.

The Lottery of Love, Orange Tree Theatre

The Lottery of Love, Orange Tree Theatre

The best play I’ve seen so far this year is the Orange Tree’s revival of 80s all-female comedy-drama Low Level Panic, so I had tentative high hopes for Lottery of Love, an adaptation of Marivaux’ little-performed 18th century comedy Le Jeu de l’amour et du hasard. These hopes were more than fulfilled.

The plot is classic farce: a betrothed couple who have not yet met simultaneously decide to swap places with their respective servants in order to gauge their intended’s true personality. Each of the four instantly falls for their ‘other half’ (faux for faux, as it were) erroneously believing themselves to be in love with the wrong person. Thus begins “a fight to the death between common sense and love.” Performed in the round (with regularly direct address to the audience), an intricate suspension of roses and tea lights makes clever use of the intimate space, turning it into a garden of romance and intrigue.

Tam Williams and Dorothea Myer-Bennett in THE LOTTERY OF LOVE - Orange Tree Theatre - photo by Helen Maybanks.jpgDorothea Myer-Bennett leads the cast as Sylvia in a beautifully observed performance: subtle and forlorn when needed, sometimes fierce, and going all out for laughs where appropriate. A young woman of strong character, she is dismissive of men (especially handsome ones!) and demands a man of equal character who can be her true and honest partner. Her rather didactic beliefs are shaken by the experience of falling in love, but Sylvia loses neither her head nor her moral core and principles, holding out for a man who will offer her marriage based on her own self and not her money or family even when it appears it will cost her the love of her life.

Ashley Zhangazha (as Richard, Sylvia’s intended, passing as a gentleman’s gentleman) and Tam Williams (as Martin, Sylvia’s brother who helps out with the ruse by pretending to be a rival for her hand) are given rather less to do, but give thoughtful and dignified performances. Keir Charles’ swaggeringly lascivious high-energy performance almost steals the show as a leering and rose-bedecked Russell Brandian dandy who exploits his master’s subterfuge to seduce what he believes to be the lady of the house, only to find himself falling properly in love on learning he’s been conned by a ladies maid.

This 90-minute play fairly races along, energetic performances fitting a pacey plot with no waffle but plenty of laughs. The script manages to be both clever and laugh out loud funny, the perfect marriage of witty wordplay and hilarious characters. It is rather light on drama – there is little conflict, what few moments of genuine angst and pain exist are resolved literally with minutes, and no real doubt both couples will clear up their misunderstandings and live happily ever after. But it is not without substance. Befitting the successor to Low Level Panic, this is rather a feminist play. The two female roles (Claire Lams bringing real verve and character to her “impudent little monkey” ladies maid) are strong, smart, outspoken women. The respect and equality shown them by the male characters is wholly refreshing. Sylvia’s father (Pip Donaghy, uniformly excellent) repeatedly emphasises his respect for and desire for her to make her own choices, and while he enjoys having fun tricking her there is never any malice or feeling she is being exploited or pressured. For a light, frothy romantic comedy, Lottery of Love manages to hit quite a few pretty salient (and very modern) points about class and gender: love vs lust, classism, love across the class barrier, and sexual double standards where a woman can be ruined by sex outside of marriage.

A joyous and sweet romp that manages to be intelligent, feminist, and very very funny.

Tam Williams and Dorothea Myer-Bennett in THE LOTTERY OF LOVE - Orange Tree Theatre - photo by Helen Maybanks.jpg

Don Juan in Soho, Wyndham’s Theatre

Don Juan in Soho, Wyndham’s Theatre

Brilliant acting and energy can’t quite cover the wasted potential of a thin script.

The legend of Don Juan dates back four hundred years. A byword for licentiousness and excess, re-imagining this iconic figure for the 21st century is ambitious task. In his first non-Shakespeare stage role since 2004’s the Pillowman, David Tennant is more than up to the job. However, writer/director Patrick Marber plays it mostly straight by giving us a fairly unexamined portrayal of a man whose dedication to debauchery stops for nothing.

David Tennant’s sheer unbridled joy and abandon carries things along nicely, ably supported by a cast better than the material. But the play fundamentally can’t decide what it is: a debauched romp? A deconstruction of the evils of excess? An indictment of modern faithless society? A standard morality tale? An argument for sexual liberation? An argument for living by your own rules? A ‘One Man Two Guvnors’ style romp about the relationship and hi-jinks of a wild master and his reluctant but loyal manservant (brilliantly played by Adrian Scarborough, whose Stan is the only character to achieve real depth)?

DonJuanInSoho_14.jpgThe constant lurching creates odd tonal shifts and leaves a rather flat feeling. Overall, it feels like the audience is invited to a beautiful sexy party where the drinks and the laughs never stop. But a play about sexual politics simply cannot be so reductive. A brilliantly performed nihilist libertine deserves more than disposal one-dimensional female characters to play off. The sexual, race and class politics are uncomfortable. A working class woman is sexually used and humiliated and then never seen again. But she’s a gold-digging chav, so who cares? Actually none of his conquests or failed conquests, including a newly-wed whose bridegroom’s death Don Juan is directly responsible for, are ever seen again – bar his wife, who gives a meandering speech about how he broke her heart (after spending months pretending to be a yoga-doing, lentil-weaving charity worker and then marrying her in order to score her virginity). Danielle Vitalis’ quietly dignified delivery is affecting, but her insistence on thanking Don Juan for giving her the gift of unlocking her sexuality is cringeworthy. Is this 50 Shades of Gray? Can someone please get this woman a vibrator, and tell her her sexuality is not male property?

A few brief attempts at critical analysis are raised but then debunked (is Don Juan’s behaviour really due to the tragic loss of his mother?). It’s unclear whether Marber is trying to examine the character’s inner landscape, or to subvert the kind of reductive cod psychology so often used to justify and humanise bad behaviour. But is Tennant’s Don Juan to be considered a villain? We are told, explicitly, that Don Juan is  “not a loveable rogue” but everything in the staging shows the opposite. The script encompasses race, religion, female sexuality, the exploitation and commodification of sexuality, sexual liberation, death, and the importance of remaining true to one’s own self. An awful lot of potential, alas wasted. It’s unclear what the message is or even if there is supposed to be a message, as moments of real insight are lost under a tidal wave of raucousness and non-stop gags: A supposedly mutually respectful encounter with a group of intelligent and appreciative prostitutes (the worst cliche of the ‘happy hooker’, made more problematic by the adoption of generic cod-Eastern European accents) is interrupted by the arrival of Don Juan’s stern taciturn and disapproving father. After an uncomfortable confrontation, Don Juan Senior’s exit is interrupted by Happy Hooker #1 announcing, “If want fuck father it cost extra, because old.” Funny? Not really. In the 17th century bribing a religious man to blaspheme could make a shocking statement about religious hypocrisy and the rejection of entrenched faith systems; in agnostic 21st century London taunting a Muslim rough sleeper feels like nothing more than thuggish Islamophobia. Even Don Juan’s violent death is hastily skated over before the entire cast start getting down, the genuinely eerie stone harbinger of death suddenly revealing a light-up neon disco ball face because PARTY PARTY PARTY!

What Don Juan succeeds at, ultimately, is a deconstruction of celebrity and excess in a world increasingly devoid meaning. It’s hard to not appreciate the irony of an actor of Tennant’s status (who at this point could read the phone book onstage to standing ovation) demolishing our narcissistic unexamined me-me-me “Welcome to my vlog, today I ate a plum” culture. In a disconnected world, without faith, without boundaries, and ultimately without consequences, what else is there but pleasure to distract from the long slow grinding march towards the grave?

Naomi Westerman On Sex in Theatre

Naomi Westerman On Sex in Theatre

It’s a warm evening in September and I am watching one of my closest friends give his wife (also a good friend) a good seeing-to over a chair. It is their first wedding anniversary. The enthusiastic audience hoots and cheers. I smile and go back to reading the ‘dogging’ section of a popular UK swingers forum.

If you are a playwright, actor, or theatre-maker, none of this will raise an eyebrow. Probably.

I have been playwriting for three years, and most of my work has been in fairly serious drama or drama with elements of comedy, generally female-centric work relating to mental health, disability, women, contemporary urban life with the odd dystopia thrown in. I was walking home one night and noticed someone had graffitied the word ‘dogging’ on the wall of the tennis centre near my house, with a helpful arrow pointing towards the car park. I went home and wrote a ten-minute play that evening, which could not be anything but a comedy. A year later and that short play now forms the opening scene of my full-length feminist lesbian pro-sex political protest porn play ‘Puppy’, which is one of two of my plays debuting as part of VAULT Festival next month.

Writing about sex is never easy, staging sex harder still (no pun intended), and I’m not sure if trying to make all this sex comedic makes it better or worse. Sex is inherently funny (and I believe also inherently political), and dogging occupies that weird area between cheeky Carry On British humour, and something sometimes perceived as more seedy and sordid (which I was keen to avoid).

 

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Nicole Kidman in The Blue Room

Finding the right balance between comedy and a more serious approach when dealing with issues of sexual orientation, identity, porn, exploitation, censorship, politics and protest was sometimes difficult, but one challenge was figuring out how to script and stage the sex scenes themselves, in a way that was funny but not cheesy or exploitative. Theatre does not have a great reputation for staging sex scenes well, although I have been inspired by previous productions that used imaginative and inventive metaphors (the Lyric Hammersmith’s Tipping the Velvet’s exploding canons and circus silks) and staging (the RSC’s It’s a Mad World My Masters’ silhouettes and curtains). In David Hare’s The Blue Room, Nicole Kidman was famously described as “pure theatrical Viagra”; I certainly have no desire nor interest for one of my productions or cast to ever be described likewise. I’d rather get a good solid laugh.

 

In my other VAULT Festival play, Claustrophilia, sex is the unmentionable elephant in the room. The one-woman drama centres around a young woman who is “totally fine” but who spend her adolescence kidnapped and held as a prisoner in a single room. She claims he never touched her, and chastises the audience for their salacious interest in those particular details. Sex, whether absent or present, always has power.

Puppy is on at Morley College, 23rd February, 2nd March. http://www.vaultfestival.com/event/puppy/2017-02-23

Claustrophilia is on at Vault Pit, 17th to 18th February.

http://www.vaultfestival.com/event/claustrophilia/2017-02-17